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Kansas State Top 5: Running Backs. Also, Centennial and American Southwest previews

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You know who #1 is, but what about the rest?

No surprises here.
No surprises here.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Lead

The top five running backs in our staff poll were pretty much set, with only one back receiving a vote who didn't end up in our top five. That was goal-line touchdown machine Ayo Saba. Mentioned, but not receiving any votes, was Daniel Thomas, which will probably surprise you -- but not as much as the fact that neither fullback Rock Cartwright (10-year NFL vet) nor Eric Gallon (now the running backs coach at Youngstown State) were even mentioned.

And also not mentioned, and I'm just shaking my head here, was Larry Brown, who never did much in his life other than being named NFL MVP in 1972 and making four Pro Bowls. But that's okay; in fairness to the staff, they got pummeled with these polls on quick turnaround. (Also, Brown wasn't really a great back at K-State, so there's that.)

5. John Hubert

Hubert first really came to our attention with his 166 yard outburst in Miami, after which some folks still criticized him for being too slow after being dragged down short 7of the end zone by the Hurricane secondary after a long run. But Hubert ended up being perhaps the most consistently excellent back in K-State history. He ran for 970 yards as a sophomore, 947 as a junior, and broke 1,000 in K-State's bowl win over Michigan as a senior, coming up just short of 3,000 for his career.

3t. Eric Hickson and Mike Lawrence

Yes, we had a tie, and how fitting is it that it was between these two? Lawrence and Hickson teamed up to man the Wildcat backfield from 1994-98. The two were classmates, but Hickson's career lasted a year longer due to an injury which kept him sidelined in 1996. The two combined for 4,800 yards and 45 touchdowns during their tenure. Neither individually posted a 1,000 yard season, but that's partially because they were splitting time; they combined for 1,315 in 1995 and over 1,400 in 1997. Both rushed for over 900 yards in their lone seasons without the other. Hickson is now an assistant under Terry Bowden at Akron after a year as running backs coach and interim head coach at Garden City. Lawrence is not far away at all; he's in Lindsborg, serving as special teams coordinator and receivers coach at Bethel College.

2. Veryl Switzer

Switzer didn't break the Big 12 color line, but he helped shatter it. Switzer, from Nicodemus, was an All-Big 7 selection each of his three years of eligibility. He was the fourth pick in the entire NFL Draft in 1954, selected by the Green Bay Packers, where he played for two sesons before spending two years in the Air Force as an officer. After that term, Switzer played for three years in the CFL before retiring. He later returned to Manhattan, where he worked for the athletic department. Switzer is a member of the KSHSAA Hall of Fame, the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame, the K-State Sports Hall of Fame, and the K-State Ring of Honor. And he very nearly beat the next guy for the top spot on our list.

1. Darren Sproles

That Switzer almost caught Sproles is a sign of the respect afforded Switzer. That Sproles managed to stay ahead of him is a sign of what Sproles did his entire career in Manhattan. The Wildcats' all-time leader in rushing yards (4,979), Sproles was the leading rusher in FBS in 2003 with 1,986 yards, and of course led the Wildcats on their audacious rout of the Sooners. He was a first-team All-American selection by the AP and Sports Illustrated in 2003, and a Heisman and Doak Walker finalist. After graduation, he went on to a stellar career in the NFL which still isn't over. A fourth-round pick of the Chargers, Sproles has racked up over 16,000 yards of total offense in his ten-year career and was finally selected as an All-Pro just last season.

Centennial Conference Preview

2014 Standings and Info
SCHOOL LOCATION CC OVERALL
13 Johns Hopkins University Blue Jays Baltimore MD 9-0 11-1
25 Muhlenberg College Mules Allentown PA 8-1 9-2
Ursinus College Bears Collegeville PA 6-3 7-3
Gettysburg College Bullets Gettysburg PA 5-4 5-5
Franklin and Marshall College Diplomats Lancaster PA 4-5 5-5
Juniata College Eagles Huntingdon PA 4-5 5-5
Moravian College Greyhounds Bethlehem PA 4-5 5-5
Dickinson College Red Devils Carlisle PA 3-6 3-7
Susquehanna University Crusaders Selinsgrove PA 2-7 2-8
McDaniel University Green Terror Westminster MD 0-9 1-9

The Centennial was its usual self last season for the most part. The conference earned two playoff bids, which is not at all unusual. But only one other team actually finished over .500, because the conference itself was extremely competitive outside the top two teams. The pre-season coaches/SID poll has Johns Hopkins as the prohibitive favorite to repeat as champions, taking 17 of the 20 first-place votes. Muhlenberg was second, taking three votes (two of which obviously came from the Hopkins camp). The battle will be for fourth place, as Moravian, Gettysburg, and Franklin & Marshall were only separated by a mere four points in the poll.

Johns Hopkins has only failed to win ten games once since 2009, and that was in 2010. Lasting playoff success still eludes the Blue Jays, however, and they lost at Hobart in the second round last year by a field goal. The Centennial's Defensive Player of the Year, DL Michael Longo, is gone along with his linemate Michael Rocca, QB Braden Anderson, OL Kyle Flynn, and DB Ryan Rice. But there's plenty of talent returning in Baltimore, including first-team All-American OL Colin Egan and his linemate Rowan Cade, RB Stuart Walters, WR Bradley Munday, LBs Brady Watts and Keith Corliss, and DB Jack Toner. That's a recipe for success.

Muhlenberg, on the other hand, loses an awful lot. First-team All-American TE Michael Long is gone, as are WR Cody Geyer, DLs Greg DeLade and Kevin Cellary, LBs Ian Gidmar and Jeremey Thomas, DB Tyler Cerbo, and K Connor Winter. Yet despite those losses, the Mules should be just fine, as they also have a host of players coming back. QB Nick Palladino, Centennial Rookie of the Year RB Max Cepeda, OLs Willie Britt, Bryan Auvil, and Andrew Kincaid, DL Kyle Ruiz, and DB John Feaster will all be back. Palladino finished 2014 just two yards shy of 3,000 yards passing, leading the league. The importance of the three offensive lineman returning in front of an experience quarterback and talented runner can't be understated. Muhlenberg will give Hopkins all they ask for and more.

Ursinus has steadily won between six and eight games every year since 2009. The Bears should be looking at the upper end of that range this year, and perhaps beyond. Their only important loss is OL Woody Stefankiewitz, while they'll return H-Back Nick Pustizzi, DL Steve Ambo, LBs James Roccograndi and Tim Rafter, DBs Kyle Adkins and Dysean Alexander, and P Eric Boyer. The offense may not overwhelm, but the returning experience on defense will be key -- especially since the Bears didn't lose last year without giving up 38 points or more.

Moravian suffered three straight 2-8 seasons before bouncing back to .500 last year. The good news: the Greyhounds lost not a single all-conference honoree to graduation. RB Chris Negron, OL Daniel Smith, DL John Snyder, DBs Jimmy McCarthy and Anthony Orlando, and KR Eli Redmond will return. As with Ursinus, all that returning talent on defense will be important; Moravian didn't lose without giving up at least 24 last season.

Gettysburg has been hovering around average since 2005, and this year should be no different. The Bullets lose OL Michael Reali and DL Steve Pondo-Voigt, while returning RB Kyle Wigley and LB Chris Miller.

Franklin & Marshall slipped a bit last year after a pair of 7-4 campaigns. 2015 could be a challenge, however, as only OL Ryan Ignatovig and DL A.J. Koikoi return. Lost to graduation: WR/KR Jordan Zackery, OL Frank Seitz, LB Ryan Young, and DBs Aaron Fant and Brian Velasco.

Juniata may have it even worse, but then they're just happy to be competitive again after going 7-73 between 2004-2011. Offensive Player of the Year QB Ward Ulinski is gone, as are WR Isaiah Slutter, OL Josh Gongloff, and LB Ethan Wilt. Only OL Frank Marin returns from last year's all-conference honorees.

Dickinson hasn't had a winning season since 2009. They lose DL Walker Moriarty, while retaining RB Cedric Madden -- the Centennial's only 1000-yard rusher last year -- and P Austin High. Other than Madden, there's little here to excite.

Susquehanna loses K Spencer Hotaling while returning OL Ryan Pearce and LB Jim Barry. The Crusaders are mired in their worst run this century, and will start 2015 under new management. Steve Briggs, after 25 years in charge, has moved on to a role helping the university solicit funding for capital investment. Tom Perkovich, the offensive coordinator at Muhlenberg, was hired to replace Briggs.

McDaniel used to be this league's bully. But that was in the 20th century; McDaniel's last 10-win season was in 2000, and their last moment of real relevance was a 9-2 campaign in 2002. Over the last four years, the Green Terror have been more like the Green Turtle, posting a 5-35 record. McDaniel had no players earn all-conference honors last year, not even an honorable mention.

Game of the year: Johns Hopkins will get the major challenge to their continued dominance out of the way early, as Muhlenberg visits on September 26.

American Southwest Conference Preview

2014 Standings and Info
SCHOOL LOCATION CC OVERALL
4 University of Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders Belton TX 11-1 5-0
rv Louisiana College Wildcats Pineville LA 4-1 6-4
rv Hardin-Simmons University Cowboys Abilene TX 3-2 6-3
East Texas Baptist University Tigers Marshall TX 1-4 4-6
Howard Payne University Yellow Jackets Brownwood TX 1-4 4-6
Sul Ross State University Lobos Alpine TX 1-4 2-8

Another year, another title for UMHB. The league was deemed strong enough that two six-win teams were still receiving votes in the poll at season's end. They'll be welcoming two new members -- or rather, one new member and one coming back home after a terrible mistake. The latter is Hardin-Simmons' crosstown rival, the McMurry University War Hawks, returning to the league after an intended move to Division II was cut short before ever officially changing classifications. The former is the Belhaven University Blazers from Jackson, Mississippi, who move to Division III from the NAIA; they'll maintain the league's Mississippi footprint abandoned by Mississippi College's move to Division II a couple of years ago.

The ASC preseason poll is out, voted on by the coaches, SIDs, and primary beat writer for each of the six eligible teams. (Belhaven and McMurry aren't eligible yet.) Only the coaches were barred from voting for their own team and players, so Mary Hardin-Baylor received 17 of 18 first-place votes; UMHB coach Pete Fredenburg gave his to Hardin-Simmons, who edged Louisiana for second place by a mere two points. After that, there was indisputable separation between the other three teams.

Mary Hardin-Baylor is just unstoppable. The Cru have won at least 10 games every year since 2006, and at least 8 every year this century. Over the last 15 years, UMHB has lost a total of six ASC contests, and 23 games total. Twelve of those 23 games were playoff losses, including their loss in the 2004 Division III title game to Linfield; the Cru are the last team other than Wisconsin-Whitewater to beat Mount Union in the postseason. But they're still waiting for their first title.

First-team All-American DB Eric Allen is gone, along with five other graduating seniors. It's the returning talent that should scare you, because it's a wall o'text: QB Zach Anderson, RBs Duane Thompson and Malcolm Miller, WR Marcus Wimby, OLs Sterling Cantue, Broderick Jenkins, and Connolly Fuller, DLs John Thorne and Teldrick Smith (the ASC Defensive Player of the Year, Defensive Lineman of the Year, and an honorable mention All-American), LB Matt Cody, DB Kris Brown, DB/P Baylor Mullins, and K Jacob O'Neill. Yeah, the Cru is going to roll this year, and might even make their way to Salem.

Hardin-Simmons was the power in this league before the rise of UMHB. The Cowboys have mostly resided on the fringe since, but they're a reasonable bet to challenge for an at-large playoff bid. The loss of OLs Daniel Edwards, Dylan Reynolds, and Josh Morales, along with RB Bryce Johnson and DB Keaton Trinkle, will hurt. But RB Kerry Sloan, co-Offensive Player of the Year last year and the only ASC back to average over 100 yards per game, returns along with WR/KR Jessie Ramos, TE Taylor Rotenberry, DLs Kyne Lewis, Korey Zavala, and Trent Walker, LBs Matt Hawkins and Tyler Ryan, DB James Place, and second-team All-American P Nico Francino.

Louisiana suffered the greatest losses of any team in the league. The Wildcats had seven players receive all-conference nods on defense, and they're all gone including first-team All-American and co-Special Teams Player of the Year DB/KR Ira Jewitt. They also lose third-team All-American and Offensive Lineman of the Year Brandon Porche. But the offense will remain solid, with co-Offensive Player of the Year QB Easton Melancon, Freshman of the Year RB Devin Sylve, WRs Ladarius Gardner and Farron Jones, and TE Josh Edwards returning along with P Tim Willett. The Wildcats have, in essence, been a seven-win team for nearly a decade. They should hit that mark again in 2015.

East Texas Baptist had one big problem last year: the defense. The Tigers gave up 50 or more points five times. Granted, one of those occasions involved giving up 98 to Division II Texas A&M-Commerce. But they also gave up 83 to UMHB in the season finale, so you can't blame it all on playing uphill. Luckily for the Tigers, all their losses were on offense, although replacing 50% of the offensive line won't be fun. WRs Stephen Alfred and Roy Butler and OLs Charles Williams, Alex Shetter, and Michael Garcia graduated. QB Josh Warbington returns to lead the charge, aided by RBs Kendall Roberson and Jourdan McNeill, WR/KR Tyler Bates, DLs Xavier Davis and David Jaynes, and DB Dominique Bailey. If that small bit of extra experience on defense helps, the Tigers might push back to .500 for the first time since 2011.

Howard Payne went through a bleak decade. After a 5-5 finish in 2006, the Jackets haven't seen .500 since, and have gone 1-9 three times. But the last two seasons they've come close, and although they lose the entire interior of their offensive line (C Derrian Thompson and Gs Patrick Dillard and Nick Ladd), they return at least one key piece everwhere else. QB Richard Young, RB Aroldo Nandin, WR Colby Mica, DL Donald Preston, LB Jason Disney, and DB Jordan Shaw all return. If HPU is going to get back on the black side of the ledger, now's the time.

Sul Ross State has won five games three times this decade, and by that we mean exactly five. Outside of that, it's been a parade of 1, 2, and 3-loss seasons. The Lobos lose five all-conference honorees to graduation, most just honorable mention; they return QB James Davis, WR Derrick Bernard, LBs Chris Tate and Casey Sonier, and DBs Shane Alexander and Terrelle Owens. That experience on defense will be important, as the Lobos didn't really give up a lot of points to teams that didn't make the playoffs or happen to be in Division II.

Belhaven had a pair of 6-5 seasons in 2009 and 2012, but their final two years in the NAIA were not pleasant. WR Greg Livingston led the NAIA in receptions last year, but he's gone now. So is RB Kadero Edley and OL Arthur Doakes. Returning players who earned Mid-South Conference honors are WR Darien Thomas, LBs Gregory Goree and Steven Joiner, and DB Alvin Vaughn. Oh, and their head coach? It's Hal Mumme. If that's not a reason to pay attention, I don't know what is.

McMurry didn't have much fun moving to Division II, although their reversal had nothing to do with their success or lack thereof; they simply decided, after testing the waters, that they preferred the non-scholarship model. Under Hal Mumme, the Red Hawks reached the Division III playoffs in their final year of eligibility in 2011, and even came within a point of knocking off UMHB in Belton during the regular season although they got swamped by the Cru in the playoffs. They went 8-3 in their first transitional year, playing a weird schedule, but then Mumme left for Belhaven, and McMurry lost eight games in both their seasons as a member of the Lone Star Conference. WR Jeret Smith, who had 1,143 yards receiving last year, is gone and signed with the Chiefs; OL Calvin Middlebrooks is the lone LSC All-Conference selection returning.

Game of the year: Mary Hardin-Baylor visits Hardin-Simmons on October 31. But the real game of the year may be the week before, when the Cru hosts Texas Lutheran in a non-conference tilt which will be a rematch of their insane playoff game from last year which was interrupted by a lightning storm.

Tomorrow

We've had some readers impatiently waiting for our top-five quarterback list. Your patience pays off tomorrow. We also begin our Division II previews by breaking down the Independents, the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, and the South Atlantic Conference.